Render Unto Caesar

A. Burt Horsley, “Render unto Caesar,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 53–63.

Render unto Caesar​

The unresolved struggle going on, seemingly, since the beginning of time between Caesar and God, or the church and the state, has kept the papacy in perpetual alternations of agony and ecstasy almost since the moment of its inception. No one particular institution always fits into either of these patterns, but it might be assumed, at least nominally, that in our western culture, the Christian church has historically represented the spiritual forces which have been in conflict with the materialistic, temporal forces identified with the idea of political government generally. More specifically, there has been an actual struggle between the popes of the Roman church and contemporary political governments and figures with whom they came in contact. The idea of “render unto Caesar” implies that there were times when the popes were under some kind of compulsion to conform to the will of the state. However, the study of their history reveals that very frequently the opposite was true.

In analytical perspective then, we are concerned with a study of the inconstant vacillating positions of both of these elements of the culture. And although the Caesaro-papal conflict has been a perpetual part of the unfolding western cultural drama, certain particular struggles have captured historical attention, especially those with implications for the assumption of political and temporal power on the part of the Roman pontiffs. Politics with religious overtones—religion with political overtones—how do they mix?

There are other implications as well. With what propriety does the person who assumes ascendancy and primacy in a position of ecclesiastical, theological, religious and spiritual leadership enhance this position as a spiritual leader of the people, with the added acquisition of strong political powers and the accumulation of wealth and temporal domain?

The reign of Constantine marked the beginning of several examples of struggle for power distinctive enough to punctuate with emphasis the spirit of the time. The bishops of Rome, during the administration of Constantine in the early part of the fourth century, were relatively weak individuals with very little power and authority, except that which was accorded them by those who governed politically. Constantine controlled the situation with a firm hold on not only political and temporal affairs, but religious as well.

The emperor was one of those so-called great figures of Christian history whose claim to greatness certainly did not in any way rest upon the fact that he was a man of the cloth or a theologian or any pillar of virtue. And yet, his life so modified and conditioned the turn of events in Christian history that it was inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the church itself. It was because of him that many events transpired, which without him might never have taken place, and certain conditions maintained and made possible which otherwise would not have been likely. Therefore, it is reasonable to lay the measuring stick alongside the life of the man and make the pragmatic assessment as to what difference it would otherwise have made to the direction of Christian history, or to the history of the papacy, had this man never lived.

Although this Caesaro-papal conflict began with Constantine, the problem was aggravated and re-emphasized again during the reign of Leo the Great and subsequently in the administration of Pope Gregory the Great, whose respective papal reigns overlapped the fifth through the seventh centuries.

In the case of Constantine, he was strong enough to tell the bishops what to do, to control the acceptance and rejection of doctrine by the church, and to establish and annunciate the official position of the church even though he was not yet a baptized Christian.

In Leo the Great (440–461), the church had a leader who definitely was able to assert effectively the authority of the Roman bishop. The emperor, now resident in the East, was not strong. The projection of his authority in the West was even weaker, and with the intrusion of the invading Huns and the approach of Atilla to the gates of Rome, Leo I stepped in to fill the void of temporal power. Atilla with half a million troops had crossed the Rhine, plundering and burning as he moved towards Rome. The Visigoths were forced to unite with the Romans, and eventually Atilla attacked Italy. Many cities fell and, as he stood before the gates of Rome ready to sack the city, it was Leo, the bishop, who went out and met him at the gates or at his camp on Lake Garda. There Leo stood up in all the majesty of his office and warned Atilla of the wrath of God that had befallen Alaric after his desecration of the Holy City. The great invader, Atilla, withdrew from before this imposing figure who displayed such assurance, a man who spoke as one having authority. Whether it was because of his superstitious fear of the claim of Leo, or because he was actually impressed with the sincerity of the man, is not known. In any event, he withdrew.

On a subsequent occasion, Leo attempted to deal again with the plundering hoards of the vandal pirates. He was not successful this time; they paid no heed to him. However, in his effort, there was to be seen a determined presumption on the part of the pope to assert authority not only as an ecclesiastic but also in matters of political and secular influence.

Some lesser irregularities were apparent in the power struggle both among the leaders of the church hierarchy and in the relationship of church and state in the period subsequent to this, but they were symptomatic of things yet to come rather than examples of designed Caesaro-papal conflict.

By the middle of the eighth century, great factional disputes among the feudal Italian nobility began to be commonplace. The object of contention was the potential political and secular power apparent in the office of the pope of Rome. To bring this power under political control and patronage would be of tremendous advantage to any one of the several contending noblemen.

This was also the time of the rise to power of a new Roman Empire in the West. And, although there had been a temporary period of congenial compatibility which brought about a relationship of cordial exchange of support between church and state, the power struggle continued.

The ninth century was the beginning of the age of Charlemagne and the rise of the Frankish kings in the West. The very lack of civil authority and politically significant leaders in the West made possible the rise to the papacy of some of the more effective popes. The papacy declined again in influence, resulting in the formation of certain groups—military cliques and parties of the Lombards, Normans and factions of the Italian-Roman noblemen. These people took sides in their allegiance to the papacy or their rejection of the particular individual who was in office at the time. Frequently, the papacy became a political plum and its occupant was selected on a basis of political expediency or prestige.

In 751, with the consent of Pope Zacharias, Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne, drove Childeric III, last of the Merovingian kings, from the Frankish throne. Forced to retire to a monastery, Childeric suffered the final indignity of having to relinquish his throne to his adversary Pepin, who was the first king in history to be anointed and crowned twice, first by a representative of the pope, and later, by Pope Zacharias himself.

In his thrust to the East, in defense of Rome against the Lombards, Pepin donated to the papacy the wrested city of Ravenna along with other territories, thus helping to establish the papal states over which the pope would reign not only with ecclesiastical presidency, but as an absolute monarch in the strictest secularly sovereign meaning of the term. It was also during the administration of Stephen II, successor to Zacharias, that the notorious forgery “donation of Constantine” was counterfeited in an attempt to bolster the papal claims to the endowment of lands in the fourth century known as the “Patrimony of St. Peter.”

With the death of Pepin in 768, Charlemagne and his younger brother took over regal control. They shared a divided realm for three years until Carloman died in 771, leaving Charlemagne as uncontested king of the Franks. As he moved eastward among the Saxons and the Lombards, and into Italy, he conquered as he went and it became obvious that he was a man of great influence and power. His father and the Prankish kings had been loyal to the institution of the papacy. As dutiful Catholics they had sought to perpetuate its power and influence. Thus, by virtue of his background, Charlemagne was also destined to fit the role of a Catholic prince very well. Before he had reached the gates of Rome, however, the powers of political intrigue and treachery inside of Rome were seeking to unseat Pope Leo III, who appealed to the advancing prince for assistance.

Charlemagne still had before him the completion of the military campaign which would eventually bring him to Rome, and he sent word to Pope Leo to wait and be patient. In the meantime, he considered the counterclaims of those seeking to take the papal throne away from Leo III and decided in favor of Leo. Although Leo III was an average pope, there being nothing very great about him, he was apparently as deserving of the office as anyone else at that time; so Charlemagne officially installed Leo as the bishop of Rome, seeing to it that he had the acknowledgement of others in this calling. As a counter gesture, the pope, with the authority which he claimed was vested in him as Vicar of Christ and as the Prince of the Church, officially crowned Charlemagne the first of the Holy Roman emperors on Christmas Day in the year 800 in Rome. This was the beginning of another period of very close relationship and compatibility between the papacy and the government.

There was a great possibility for revival and renewed growth under Charlemagne because as he went out conquering all of continental Europe and even the islands, he was “Christianizing” as he went. He imposed a compulsory proselyting program—those who were conquered had the Christian faith forced upon them and were compelled, by imperial edict, to confess Christianity. Thus the whole church moved into new territory behind the military thrust of the expanding Holy Roman Empire. Each new conquest made possible the further expansion of Christianity and, of course, the accompanying prestige and power of the pope. Unfortunately, Charlemagne had no successors of the same caliber, the same ability to deal with the church, and at the same time deal wisely with the people who came under their administration. Eventually, the Carolingians, as they were called, died out and lost their authority. Again, there was a temporary lapse of power of the Holy Roman Empire. It was not effectively reestablished until the time of Otto in the tenth century in Germany.

Then there began a period of constant conflict between the popes and the German emperors. This reached a climax in the eleventh century when Hildebrand came into the papacy and fought it out with King Henry IV, who stood in the snow for three days asking for forgiveness before the gates of the castle at Canossa, where the pope was spending a vacation. Before this forgiveness was bestowed, the king was compelled to crawl in a prostrate manner through the entire cathedral up to the feet of the pope, and kiss his feet. Only then was he received back into communion in the church. Henry had been excommunicated because of his refusal to recognize the power of the pope over the kings. It was the contention of Hildebrand that since the church controlled the sacraments and since even the princes, the rulers and sovereigns, needed the sacraments for salvation, there was thus circumstantial ascendancy of the church over any temporal authority. Even kings must of necessity bow to the rule of Jesus Christ, and the authority vested in the church to administer the sacraments. Therefore, the pope had the right to withhold the sacraments from those who would not accede to his influence and desires in ecclesiastical and doctrinal matters.

This particular struggle between church and state also focused attention on the issue of whether or not a monarch has the right to install a bishop, or to function in ecclesiastical matters in any manner whatsoever, an issue complicated by the question of simony—the buying and selling of church office. Should a lay member, who has never had any training in the duties of the clergy or in theology, be called to an office in the church, either as a bishop or a priest, because of political patronage or because the ruling sovereign of a given area decides that it should be so for purposes of political expediency? This controversy waged continuously into the period of the reformation, but had spent itself considerably by the end of the papal reign of Innocent III (1198–1216).

Nevertheless, we find that the conflict later resumed between the French King Phillip IV (1268–1314) and Boniface VII, who represent the end of this period. Never again would the papacy be as strong as it had been during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Renaissance popes, who were weaklings for the most part, preceded the age of reform and the beginning of the modern period. On the other hand, almost without exception, the popes in more recent times have been men of character, men of greatness. As pious religionists, they have attempted to serve the needs of the people and to function in keeping with a more religious interpretation of the position of the pope of Rome. Yet, even in the twentieth century, the controversy—the so- called Caesaro-papal conflict—has continued; this time, in the struggle of the church against communism, fascism, and nazism.

In the United States today, in spite of a recent decline in the annual rate of membership growth, there are about fifty million Roman Catholics. Together with other denominational groups, they are part of a continuing problem which aggravates or enunciates the age-old issue as to what shall be the relationship between the state and the church. In a place like America, where separation of church and state has been established, traditionally, by the Constitution, there are always questions being raised as to how justice might best be served if certain controversial issues were to surface. When there is a preponderance of members of the Catholic church in a given area, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, should the interests of the majority be subverted for the sake of the minority? Would there be a strain on the traditions of American representative government? It has always been maintained in this country, since the very earliest days, that it just might be impossible that a Catholic would be elected president. In the election of John F. Kennedy, that false assumption was laid to rest.

Frequently, people from certain churches, who have attempted to aspire to positions of prominence in the federal government, have been challenged on the basis of their loyalty or allegiance. The question has often been raised, “where is the loyalty or the allegiance of this man? Is it to his church, to the hierarchal authority of his church, or would it be to the government of the United States in a matter of decision wherein he had to choose one or the other?” These questions are being raised again and again wherever there is a strong sense of the need to preserve the principle of separation of church and state.

Other problems have developed because of attempts which have been made to defame popes and potentates by identification with certain scriptural references, or with certain unsavory or disreputable titles. In Revelation 13:18, there is reference made to the mark of the beast, and it is identified with the number 666. The book of Revelation is one of those apocalyptic writings which presents, for many, a rather formidable challenge in the area of scripture interpretation: it is practically unfathomable. There is no question but that much of its meaning was hidden and intended to be meaningful only to those who were acquainted with the code which perhaps would untangle it. But traditionally, there has been an attempt to try to identify the man who has the mark of the beast, the one who has the number 666. Many Bible scholars are in agreement that the author of the book of Revelation might possibly have had reference to Nero. By this reasoning Nero was the great beast of Babylon, the one who persecuted Christians, and the one who was the murderer of Peter and Paul in the thinking of early Christians, the one responsible for the great struggle that the church was going to have to face to survive. There is, perhaps, reasonably good evidence to support this early claim that the reference made by the author of the book of Revelation to the man who has the mark of the beast, the man whose number is 666, was indeed Nero Caesar.

If Nero’s name is written in Greek and the letters given their numerical equivalent, it comes out with some modification to the number 666. If it is used in Latin, one can leave the “n” off the end of it, change the letters to the Hebrew equivalents, and then take the Hebrew equivalents of the numbers represented by these letters, and it again comes out 666. To the thinking person the employment of numerology in matters such as this is an irrational but age-old practice. Therefore, it certainly was not confined to this particular period or to numerological manipulation.

Another example during the reformation period involved Albrecht, who had purchased the archbishopric of Mainz. He already held two other bishoprics in defiance of the established policy of the church. Moreover, such avarice was considered a serious sin, therefore requiring suitable penance. Negotiations were entered into as to the amount he would have to pay in charity to the church in order to obtain forgiveness. The pope suggested twelve thousand ducats in memory of the twelve Apostles. Albrecht countered with seven thousand ducats representing the seven deadly sins. They finally compromised for ten thousand ducats, without specifying whether it was in memory of the Ten Commandments or the ten virgins.

Numerology has been employed in various enterprises, but perhaps the most historically humanitarian significance for the number 666 was in the employment of it to designate the experiment by Dr. Paul Ehrlich, which resulted in the effective treatment of syphilis. This may have been more meaningful for humanity than the use of the number in the field of denominational religion. Nevertheless, denominational devotees have been undaunted in their pursuit of the identity of him who bears the mark of the beast. The Adventists have attempted to identify it with the popes of Rome. The inscription on the tiara or the crown of the pope of Rome is Vicarius Filii Dei, the Vicar or representative of the Son of God. It is a simple matter to take the equivalent of the Roman numerals which are in these words: D equals five hundred, I is one, C is one hundred, the V and the U being the same in Latin are both fives, the L is a fifty, and added all together it comes out 666. It is, by their calculation, obviously the pope of Rome to whom the book of Revelation has reference. One knotty point left in dispute, however, is the obvious question of what to do with the other letters which do not fit into the formula and are left over.

To retaliate, some German Catholics decided that the formula would work equally well if applied to the Adventists. If one takes the German-Latin composite for the Adventists, Adventisten Apocalypsen, and the international initials of their names, UNFVG, it adds up to 666 and so the Adventist is obviously the one referred to in the book of Revelation.

We do not know for sure what was meant by the numerology in the book of Revelation. Apparently, John may have been attempting to confuse certain unbelievers and yet, at the same time, to make clear to those who knew what his numbers were intended to imply, the identification of someone; maybe the head of state, or who knows, maybe an apostate bishop.

In summary, the age-old struggle between the church and state, between Caesar and God, has never been conclusively settled; it continues on. In spite of the periods of decline and the loss of prestige and influence by the papacy at times, that institution is still with us; whereas, its historical opponents have one by one passed on into oblivion. Nations have come and gone, kings have been toppled from their thrones, Hitlers and Mussolinis have come to tragic end and empires have declined and fallen in the throes of the struggle to survive, but many roads somehow still seem to lead to Rome.